Literacy and young learners: reading, writing and beyond

Marybelle Marrero-Colón

Marybelle Marrero-Colón has 32 years of experience in the fields of ESL, bilingual education, bilingual special education, special education instruction and evaluation, and professional development and coaching. In the first blog post of this series, she looks at different ways of defining literacy and how we can develop this skill in students.

According to many in the field of education, literacy is defined as the ability to read and write. However, is that really the only definition? According to the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary, it is also defined as a basic skill or knowledge of a particular subject, or a type of knowledge. It is the ability, confidence and willingness to engage with language to acquire, construct and communicate meaning (CMEC, 2018). Using these definitions, literacy development takes on a whole new perspective. In the modern sense, literacy encompasses many different aspects which are influenced by academic research, institutional agendas, national contexts, cultural norms/values, and personal experiences (UNESCO, 2019/2006).

Literacy in the classroom

One concept revolves around a tangible set of cognitive skills such as reading and writing. However, if one takes the view that a literate society is based on a continuum of modes of communication, then one must add to this list of tangible skills oral language development and expression. In the classroom then, activities such as oral presentations, debate, and drama open up a host of opportunities for not only literate discourse, but personal expression and creativity.

A much broader view of literacy includes those skills that enable access to knowledge and information. In this sense, students develop other skills and competencies besides the foundational literacies (reading and writing). These may include visual, media and digital literacy, or literacy in specific content areas such as science and mathematics (Pietila, 2017). In this sense, students gain information through text, personal experience, hands-on projects, activities, and media. Video, virtual reality, social media, and experimentation all become an active form of literacy development.

Literacy as a learning process

Another view of literacy which is directly linked to language development and use, is that of literacy as a learning process. Involving students in a learner-centered, experiential approach where they need to utilize reading, writing, oral skills, and the specialized knowledge of the content area supports students, not only in putting into practice what is learned, but also in applying this knowledge across subject areas and real life situations. The more they put these skills to work, the more literate they become.

For example, a group of fourth grade students are studying the effects of recycling on the environment. They are assigned a project where they have to investigate public opinion of the topic. In order to complete their project, the students read several articles and pamphlets on recycling; create an opinion survey tapping into public knowledge of the topic; go out and interview a large number of people in their town/city, collect the data, analyze the survey results, and create a PowerPoint presentation summarizing their findings. They present their findings to their peers at school or in a public forum like a PTA (parent-teacher association) or school board meeting. This entire process has allowed the students to utilize all of their literacy skills in an authentic format that has real world applications, and the more they apply these skills, the stronger their literacy achievement.

Literacy can also be viewed as an active and applicable learning process. Students use their language to read about, discuss, develop, and implement content concepts. For example, students taking a course in high school economics can study the market, identify which products are selling the most in a particular area (i.e. sports drinks, snacks, beauty products, clothing, or technology), develop a prototype product, and create a presentation to market that product to the school community. They can create surveys to test their product’s appeal, and implement their marketing plans. They can then compare their results to those of a similar product being sold in stores. In this sense their literacy skills are not only being used to read about marketing and writing a report, they are expanding their knowledge of the market economy and applying the information in an authentic and relevant manner that expands their particular type of knowledge in this field; which by the way, takes us back to our original definition of literacy.

Watch out for Marybelle’s next post in the series on how we can develop children’s writing skills.  In the meantime, discover further insights and activities you can use in the classroom, with our Cambridge Primary resources.


The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (2010). Literacy more than education: Progress Report on Literacy.

Pietila, N. (2017). The Top 10 Literacies in Education Today. Advancing K-12. Skyward Online Publications.

UNESCO. (2019). EFA global monitoring report 2006: Education for all: literacy for life: a Summary.

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